By Sadasivam Reddi
“We all realise that ethnic categories are illogical and potentially divisive but on the other hand our Constitution makes provision for the safeguarding of both individual and group rights. At issue in resolving this dilemma is the construction of a Mauritian identity, both collectively and individually. One other option left to us is to seek a democratization of our democracy…”
The term General Population has been the subject of controversy recently when a candidate in the last elections of 2010 was able to benefit from the best loser system by registering himself as a member of General Population instead of the Chinese as some would have expected him to. There have been several criticisms regarding the choice of that candidate to register himself under that category, and some who feel aggrieved by his decision have even contemplated taking the matter to court. This short paper does not intend to discuss the merits or demerits of that particular candidate’s choice or even the propriety of the choice but simply to shed some light on historical circumstances in which the category General Population was used and how it has evolved over the years and to briefly conclude with an opinion on its implications for Mauritian identity and political stability.
At the time of British conquest of the island in 1810, the population of the island was diversely categorised as White, Free coloured and Slaves. Baron d’Unienville in his book ‘Statistiques de L’île Maurice’ which was commissioned by the British colonial government described the population as White, Free, Coloured and Slaves and he even further categorised the different ethnic groups among slaves. At that time racial categories were taken as self-evident.
In the wake of the movement towards the abolition of slavery, the British wanted to abolish racial discrimination in the island and, on 22 June 1829, an Ordinance in Council abolished ‘the various disabilities under which subjects of free condition but not African and Indian birth and descent are subjected and to which subjects of European birth and descent were not’. In brief, racial discrimination was abolished for free subjects be they white, Indian or African. The ones to benefit from this measure were the coloured whose rights had been abolished during the Napoleonic regime. After 1829 the coloured people were enfranchised and from that time they enjoyed equality before the law.
But the categorisation of the population became complicated after racial discrimination and slavery were abolished. When the slaves were freed, they were for some time described as apprentices and later as ex-apprentices but these appellations could not be retained for long. On the other hand, after the abolition of racial discrimination, the population could no longer be officially described as blacks or whites, these racial categories being contrary to the law of 1829. It was in this particular historical context that blacks, coloured and white were grouped in ‘General Population’. Hence the census of 1846 made a distinction between General Population, ex-apprentices and Indian and other immigrant labourers, Indian referring presumably to country of origin.
In 1851 many of the ex-apprentices had married in the General Population and by 1861, the Census Commissioner found it difficult to distinguish ex-apprentices from the general population and he solved it by putting all ex-apprentices in the category of General Population. Moreover, by that time many ex-apprentices had had died and their children could no longer be described as ex-apprentices which they were not. In the 1871 census the same distinction between Indian and general population was maintained. But it appears that in the census defining the Indian population was becoming a cause of concern, and a new dimension was added to the definition of Indian. Indian was to refer not only to persons from India but also to Indians of unmixed origins whereas all other inhabitants were irrespective of descent, nationality or birthplace were considered as belonging to the General Population
By 1881 the Census commissioner was already finding difficult to distinguish Indians from general population. He realised that Indians who had converted to Christianity were taking European names. For some time they would be identified as Indian but in the long term it would be difficult to put them under the category Indian if they chose to identify themselves as General Population. The 1891 census report maintained the division of the population into General Population, Indians and other Indians. It explained that the term General Population ‘has received this name because of its heterogeneous character… it includes all persons born in the colony, except those of Indian parents or where the father was of Indian origins, besides Europeans and Chinese. It is most easily defined as the residuum after separating the Indo Mauritian and the other Indian’.
The lieutenant governor at one moment even thought that there might not be any reason to distinguish the General Population from the Indian population though in 1901 the Census commissioner remarked that the assimilation between the two groups were negligible. He found it relatively easy for the enumerators to classify Chinese and Indians but for the General population, conversion to Christianity and intermarriages was already making the classification of the general population defective since classification was made by means of surnames. In 1901 the Secretary of State asked for a return of population under the following heads — Europeans (whites, mixed and coloured), Africans, Indians and Chinese, but only 643 persons were returned as Africans though according to the census Commissioner there could have been 2000 to 3000 of that class. In 1921 the Census commissioner was thinking of coming with new classifications – European, Mauritian, Chinese, and he wanted the term Mauritian to apply ‘to persons of whatever origin, who have permanently settled in Mauritius and who are following European customs and religions’.
By 1931 religion was used as a marker of identity so that Indians embracing Christianity were classified as General Population and by 1944, for ‘a clearer insight’ the population was divided on religious grounds, Christians in the general population and Indians into Hindus and Muslims.
Whereas in the past the classification was generally done for social and political reasons, in the late 1940s it took a fresh importance as the issue of political representation became important. Politics was being increasingly democratised following a number of constitutional conferences in the 1950s. The London agreement of 1957 was interpreted by the Electoral Boundary Commission as implying that in the following three elections each main section of the population should be guaranteed its due proportion in the legislature and it was left to the governor’s discretionary powers of nomination to be ‘used where appropriate to ensure representation of special interests or those who had no chance of obtaining representation through elections’. On 5 February 1958, the Secretary of State added a further criteria: the power of nomination was to be exercised that each of the main sections of the population (Hindus, General Population and Muslims ) was represented in the legislature in numbers broadly corresponding to its proportion of the population as a whole and the same classification was retained by The People Representation Ordinance of 1958.
In his report in 1964 the Constitutional commissioner was against guaranteeing representation of specific ethnic interests in the legislature. However he found that there was a widespread feeling in Mauritius that the electoral system would have to guarantee to the various sections of the population their proportionate allocation of seats in the legislature on the commonly held assumption that such a guarantee would preserve inter-communal harmony. He also found that there was equally a reluctance to face up the implications of such a guarantee namely that each candidate would have to proclaim his communal affiliation when he was nominated, so that a communal score seat would be available for the allocation of seats. De Smith was aware that some might find it a distasteful procedure that it would bring in an element of communalism and that it would be difficult to agree upon the constitutional definitions of a Hindu or a member of the General Population.
Finally De Smith conceded that the in the political and social climate of the time this guarantee was the least evil ‘but I believe an evil nonetheless, and one which may seriously inhibit the growth of national consciousness over the years’. He also viewed with misgivings the constitutional consecration of communities and had suggested alternative methods of representation ‘which would afford reasonable opportunities to minorities without encouraging communal attitudes to public life’.
Forty five years after, the same issues that were outlined by De Smith have re-surfaced — the issue of representation, the definition of communities, and consecration of ethnicity in the Constitution. Some want to abolish the best loser system while others want to replace General Population by Creoles. As politicians bemoan and celebrate manifestations of identity with the cultural centres, many find it impossible to capture their multiple identities with the four choices and want to claim and assert them all and not be forced to accept one only.
In the field of politics, a proposal by any Creole member both from the Government and Opposition ranks to replace General Population by Creole in our Constitution would easily secure the required majority, but this is unlikely to happen as the main parties are conscious of the far-reaching implications and changes. On the other hand their own proposals for a dose of proportional representation or party list could only result in the implosion of their respective parties and usher an unprecedented period of instability which the problematic necessity of the best loser system has so far spared us.
We all realise that ethnic categories are illogical and potentially divisive but on the other hand our Constitution makes provision for the safeguarding of both individual and group rights. At issue in resolving this dilemma is the construction of a Mauritian identity, both collectively and individually. One other option left to us is to seek a democratization of our democracy.
* Published in print edition on 9 July 2010